There is a saying I have found myself repeating incessantly as of late in many conversations with my millennial clients. “Do what you have to do, so you can do what you want to do.” Millennials are people born from approximately 1983 to the early 2000s. Many are hitting the corporate world with a slightly different world view that, at times, has senior management baffled and bewildered. The feeling tends to be mutual, as millennials are equally baffled at the archaic manner of doing business and bureaucratic pace of older, larger institutions. This has raised concerns in the corporate world as to how they attract, retain, manage and collaborate with millennials.
Being a millennial myself, I like to affectionately view us as the microwave popcorn generation. We grew up in a world and time when things are happening a lot faster and as a result, we have come to expect such expediency in our career growth. The internet and movies have fuelled our imagination and expectations of what it means to be in the corporate world. Like many fantasy films, the reality is direly disappointing. We do not graduate, get recognized as top talent and immediately be fast-tracked in our career to the office of Chief Executive Officer of an institution – that started when we were in our diapers – in a few months.
In fact, many millennials are confused by being asked to make photocopies of seemingly unnecessary documents and other seemingly menial administrative tasks. This was not the world-changing impact they had in mind. This was what a hard-earned tertiary qualification was supposed to protect them from. Of course, having been taught to be innovative and to challenge the status quo, many young people have had to challenge the management when their less-than-impressive day to day tasks aren’t mentally stimulating. Others choose to opt-out of the corporate world dejected and run into the less-than-comforting arms of entrepreneurship, where the promise of freedom and being your own boss is rather tempting.
There are some truths that I must share with my fellow millennials. The reality is you don’t know what you don’t know. Universities teach us the theory, without giving us the chance to put them into practice or execute what we’ve learned. The ability to have hands-on exposure is a privilege that only experience can bring. You would never read a textbook on surgery and then deem yourself the Chief Surgeon in a hospital with a scalpel in hand ready to do an appendectomy. Why then do we believe that it is different in the corporate world?
The reality is that you are, in essence, still a learner at the early stage of your career and you have to get the basics right. Organisations, for me, are best described as various tiers requiring very different expertise. The tiers range from administrative, tactical, operational and strategic and the various levels require different skill sets. The administrative tier requires meticulousness and patience due to the sometimes repetitive nature of the work. The tactical tier requires an increased emotional quotient because this is where the junior people leaders can be found. The operational level requires the ability to execute the strategy effectively. The strategy tier requires the ability to be visionary and plan for the organisations future, relevance and sustainability.
To properly illustrate these tiers, let us consider the finance function. A Chief Financial Officer can comfortably execute a strategy knowing the administrative consequences for his bookkeeper, the tactical requirements for his accountants, and the operational implications for his finance managers. This level of expertise is earned through experience, and attempting to leapfrog what can only be acquired through time serves no one.
So smile, buckle down and become an expert in your corner of the organization. Your duty as a young employee is to excel in doing the redundant, in order to sharpen your attention to detail and to gain an understanding of the primary building block ingredients of business. Having the privilege of learning in the safety of a large corporation allows you to make your mistakes hopefully without the repercussions of bankruptcy – which can be the case when dabbling in entrepreneurship. You can come in as a book technical expert in one discipline, but being in an organization allows you to interact and learn how multiple disciplines work. It also helps you to engage with people who come from different schools of thought in order to enrich your experience.
Your biggest task in both the beginning and throughout your career is to commit to learning new skills, disrupting yourself, and staying at the edge of chaos to help yourself and your organization become market leaders. It is your responsibility to create a stellar reputation that will be trusted throughout your life – a personal brand that others will recognise and value. The ability to learn, unlearn and relearn is fast becoming a critical career skill that will aid in ensuring your relevance and longevity.
Once these skills are acquired and you have in essence done what you have to do, you can very happily do what you want to do. We can’t filter, edit, curate, or pop into a microwave what can only be acquired by time, effort and experience. This is the biggest plight of being a millennial in the real unsympathetic world of corporate. I, however, have every confidence that when we earn our stripes, we will dominate that world – doing what we want to do. If that wasn’t the case, I highly doubt millennial mania would exist in such abundance.